Lebanon's Cabinet approved sweeping reforms with no new taxes in hopes to appease hundreds of thousands of people who have been protesting for days, calling for indiscriminate accountability and for Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government to resign.

A Lebanese protester takes part in ongoing demonstrations to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades, on October 21, 2019 north of Beirut.
A Lebanese protester takes part in ongoing demonstrations to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades, on October 21, 2019 north of Beirut. (AFP)

Lebanon's Cabinet has approved sweeping reforms that it hopes will appease hundreds of thousands of people who have been protesting for days, calling on Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government to resign.

Protesters closed major roads around Lebanon ahead of the emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss a rescue plan for the country's crumbling economy.

Hariri told reporters after an emergency government meeting on Monday the Cabinet approved the 2020 budget with a deficit of 0.6 percent with no new taxes.

TRT World's Sarah Morice reports.

He said the salaries of top officials, including legislators and members of parliament, will be cut in half as part of an economic reform package.

Hariri added that the country's central bank and the banking sector, which are flush with cash, will help in reducing the deficit by about 3.4 billion.

He said he supported demonstrators' call for early elections.

The under-fire premier was speaking in a televised press conference that followed a cabinet meeting during which much-delayed economic reforms and the 2020 budget were approved.

The Cabinet also approved abolishing several state institutions, including the Ministry of Information.

The government will also give millions of dollars to families living in poverty as well as $160 million as housing loans. Hariri described the measures as a "financial coup."

'All of them means all of them'

On Monday morning, demonstrators placed barriers on major intersections in Beirut as well as other cities and towns marking the fifth day of protests triggered by proposed new taxes.

Soldiers barricaded the paths to parliament. Graffiti scrawled on building walls declared "Revolution."

Hundreds of thousands participated in Sunday's mass protests that were the largest since 2005.

"If we get reforms, for a start it's good, to calm down the storms, people are angry ... but in the long term, I don't know if it will make a change," said Rida Jammoul, a football coach.

Ziad Abou Chakra pledged to keep protesting until the government fell. "We will stay here and we won't open the roads whatever happens," he said, manning a roadblock north of Beirut.

Hariri, who leads a coalition mired in sectarian and political rivalries gave his cabinet a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree reform plans, hinting he might otherwise resign.

From the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab uprisings to ingenious street slogans denouncing a "corrupt" ruling elite, the chants of Lebanon's protests have been a mix of defiance and humour.

Since mass demonstrations started on Thursday, the chortles of tens of thousands have rung out across the country, until the late hours of the night.

"The people demand the fall of the regime" –– a popular chant from the 2011 Arab uprisings –– reigned supreme.

Another slogan –– "revolution, revolution" –– has also become a favourite among the tens of thousands mobilising against the government, usually accompanied by raised fists.

The ones tailored to specific members of Lebanon's ruling class left no politician unscathed.

In a country where partisan sentiments run high, and divisions run deep along party lines, thousands have chanted "All of them means all of them" to reject an entire political class without exception.

People power

The rallies across Lebanon have been a historic outpouring of dissent against politicians, some of them civil war-era leaders, who are widely seen to have used state resources and influence for their own power and gain.

But President Michel Aoun said it was unfair to tarnish everyone with corruption charges and that banking secrecy should be lifted from the accounts of current and future ministers.

"What is happening in the streets expresses people's pain, but generalising corruption (charges) against everyone carries big injustice," he said.

A chorus of voices, from union leaders to politicians, has joined calls for Hariri's government to resign.

Opponents of that include the powerful, heavily armed Shia Hezbollah movement backed by Iran. Its leader said on Saturday Lebanon did not have time for such a move given the acute financial situation.

The Lebanese economy has been hit by political paralysis and regional conflicts, among other factors. Economic woes have been compounded by strains in the financial system that accumulated as capital flows into the country have slowed down.

These capital inflows are needed to finance the state deficit and the needs of its import-dependent economy.

Lebanon's dollar-denominated sovereign bonds suffered hefty losses on Monday following sharp drops on Friday. Some bonds sank to record lows, indicating investors' crumbling confidence.

The pressures have shown up in the real economy of late where it has become harder to obtain dollars at the official exchange rate. Dollars have become harder to find and the Lebanese pound has been under pressure.

"The message to the politicians is don't ever underestimate the power of the people because once they unite they will explode - peacefully," said Hiba Dandachli, 36, a social entrepreneur who was helping clean up central Beirut on Monday.

"There are children, families, all from different religions and backgrounds," she said.

“I am with the reforms. I am against the destruction of Lebanon,” said Rabih Zghaib a protester in Beirut. “Lebanon has been badly damaged by the politicians for 30 years. Today their thrones are shaking.”

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed hope that Lebanon’s government and political parties pay “attention to people’s demands,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

It was the first remarks by an Iranian official about the protests in Lebanon. Iran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon through the militant Hezbollah organisation that is armed and funded by Tehran. 

Hezbollah and its allies have a majority of seats in Lebanon’s parliament and Cabinet. In 2005, Lebanon witnessed protests and a mass uprising against Syria’s occupation of the country, after Damascus was blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a large car bomb.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies